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iOS 4.1 and Game Center: First Impressions

Apple has released the iOS 4.1 update for iPhone and iPod touch, as promised last week. Got it yet? If not, then fire up iTunes and start downloading! We grabbed it for our iPhone 4, and have been nosing around to see how its new features shape up.

Here’s our first impressions, starting with…

Game Center

Apple’s social gaming community is live, aiming to do for iOS devices what Xbox Live did for Microsoft’s games console. Sign up friends, compare high scores, collect achievements and get matched with other people for real-time multiplayer. Exciting stuff.

Well, it will be, when there are some games available. Update to iOS 4.1, and you get a new Game Center icon, which lets you bagsy a username – another reason to update as soon as possible – and start adding friends. At the time of writing, there are no iOS games that support Game Center though – we’re assuming updates will start appearing in the App Store tonight and tomorrow.

Update: Ms. Pac-Man just became the first Game Center-enabled iOS game.

So, for now you can create a profile, update your status message, and add friends. One immediate negative point: you can only add friends by their username or email address, but like Apple’s Ping social network, there’s no option to use Facebook Connect or Twitter authentication to see which friends are already signed up.

Fingers crossed Apple and Facebook can resolve their differences, as for now, you’ll be restricted to inviting people, or publishing your Game Center username willy nilly on social networks to help people add you.

HDR photography and HD video uploads

We’re already big fans of HDR Photography, based on taking a bunch of snaps this evening. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and essentially when turned on, the feature takes photos at several different exposures, combining them into the best shot.

In short, better photos, with less dark bits. Good for shots taken hurriedly, or in dodgy lighting conditions. The original shot taken is saved alongside the HDR version, although you can turn this option off in the Settings menu. That means we’ve been able to look at normal snaps and HDR snaps side by side, and there’s a clear bump in the quality of shots.

Another welcome feature is the ability to upload HD videos to YouTube directly from the device over Wi-Fi, rather than having to sync them with your PC first. We’ve regularly wondered why our super-sharp iPhone 4 vids still look pixelly on YouTube, and here’s the reason. Naturally, HD videos take longer to upload, but the results are worth it.

iTunes improvements

One of the big new features in iOS 4.1 is the ability to rent films and TV shows from the iTunes Store, but at first glance, it seems like this is more a US thing. There are some films available to rent – Kick-Ass is £4.49, Exit Through The Gift Shop is £3.49, and oldie Dangerous Liaisons is £1.99. But when it comes to TV, everything’s still Buy only. This will hopefully change as Apple signs deals with broadcasters here in the UK.

You don’t need iOS 4.1 to access Apple’s new Ping social music network, even though it’s being flagged as one of the features of the update. Even so, many people will be seeing it for the first time with this update.

Ping suffers from the same non-Facebook-Connecting issues as Game Center, and in any case you mainly add people to follow from the desktop iTunes application, rather than from iPhone or iPod touch. On your device, it’s more about checking the activity of the people you’re following – what they’ve been buying, liking and commenting on – and updating your own activity.

It works well, and every song mentioned can be tapped on to hear a preview and buy it from the iTunes Store. However, one of Ping’s restrictions is that it’s tied into the store rather than the iOS iPod music app – there’s no way to ‘Like’ or comment on a song that you’re listening to, apart from opening up the iTunes app, searching for it and doing it from there.

It’s early days, but Ping will hopefully become more powerful – and thus more interesting – in the coming months.

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